Racial Indigestion: Eating Bodies in the 19th Century

By Kyla Wazana Tompkins | Go to book overview

4
A Wholesome Girl
Addiction, Grahamite Dietetics,
and Louisa May Alcott’s Rose Campbell Novels

Aunt Betsey, there’s going to be a new Declaration of Independence.

—Louisa May Alcott, Work1

The first line of Work, Louisa May Alcott’s 1873 novel, opens on a revolutionary note. Revolution was in the air: the end of the Civil War had brought enormous change, beginning with the emancipation of the slaves and the passage of the Fifteenth Amendment. Three years after the publication of the novel Alcott’s nation celebrated the centennial of the Declaration of Independence; the hundred-year mark was also in the air as a measure of the nation’s success. Thus, when Christie Devon makes her announcement to Aunt Betsey, she is speaking into the Zeitgeist. In fact, in Little Women, which was begun after Work but published before, Alcott introduces the same trope, comparing French girls to Americans, who “early sign a declaration of independence, and enjoy their freedom with Republican zest.”2

In Work’s opening passage we find Christie, the novel’s protagonist, engaged in the quintessential act of traditional domesticity: baking bread. She upsets the usual order of such a scene, however, with the momentous announcement that she will be leaving her aunt and uncle’s home in order to make her own living. The search for such “work” furnishes the book with its main plot.3 Though the novel was written over 130 years ago, its setting—an “old-fashioned” kitchen—and its initial act—kneading bread in a bread trough—still signal to readers today that this is very much a woman’s novel. In baking bread Christie performs an act that continues to represent the quintessence of female domestic labor. The passage continues:

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